A WEEKLY bilingual blog published under the name of Joe McHugh, minister for Gaeltacht affairs, was written by an Irish language playwright who was giving Irish grinds to the minister at a cost of €120 a week.
Records released under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) show Francie Cullen, a playwright from Co Donegal who is fluent in Irish, drafted each blog before it was edited by civil servants and published on the department’s website on Mondays under the title: “Joe’s Message”.
The weekly blog, written in the first person, included tips on grammar, vocabulary and discussions on quirky place names and seanfhocail (proverbs). There have been 27 blogs, with the first published in August 2014. The last blog post was on February 9.
Cullen, who provided McHugh with three classes a week at a cost of €40 each, has been paid €2,880 to date for the grinds and his “work on the blog”, the department said. It said that Cullen had been engaged on a “temporary basis” to help the minister with his Irish and that the costs of his assistance with the blog were “in-built”.
“Mr Cullen provided a weekly class to the minister of state which included a weekly tip on learning Irish along with a proverb and other subjects for discussion,” the department said. “The weekly class was collated into material for the blog. This was then submitted to the department to be read over and put into proper format for uploading to the website. The blog was translated from Irish into English before uploading.”
The department said the “arrangement” with Cullen had now concluded and McHugh was considering whether to continue the blog. The department said it had not tendered the contract for providing language services to the minister. “As the amount envisaged was below the procurement threshold (€5,000) it was decided to go ahead with a short-term arrangement on a trial basis,” it said.
However, in January civil servants noted that a proper procurement process would have to take place if the “contract for this blog” was to be extended. Addressing McHugh’s personal secretary, one civil servant said the department could not continue to pay for the service. “We can cover the invoices submitted as a gesture of goodwill but there should be no further work on it,” she said. “If the minister wishes to keep it going, and if the department is to continue to pay for it, then the proper procurement procedures will have to apply.”
Instead it later emerged that McHugh had “verbally” extended Cullen’s contract by three months. The final blog entry on February 9 coincides with the expiration of this three-month extension.
The weekly online diary first appeared on August 18, 2014, shortly after McHugh was appointed to the role of minister for Gaeltacht affairs despite admitting his Irish was “a bit rusty”.
Irish language activists criticised his appointment as “a step in the wrong direction”, while Éamon Ó Cuív said it was a “slap in the face” for Gaeltacht communities.
In the first blog, he promised to “post a seanfhocal and a sentence or two in Irish” each week to help those trying to learn the language.